Action Jackson embodied the boom

David Jackson, who resigned yesterday as Istithmar's chief, symbolised the deep-pocketed, can-do image of Dubai at the height of the boom years.

Perhaps more than any other individual in the emirate's business community, David Jackson symbolised the deep-pocketed, can-do image of Dubai at the height of the boom years. Mr Jackson became the chief investment officer of Istithmar in 2004, when Dubai's burst of economic expansion was already under way. But after 2006, when he became the chief executive of the government-owned investment vehicle, the emirate's attempts to become a player on the world financial stage became almost hyperactive.

Dubai was rumoured as a possible bidder for almost any asset that became available, from football clubs to engineering companies. Mr Jackson's Istithmar was not shy about being seen at the forefront of bidders for any of these assets, but his forte was for glitzy, big-brand opportunities, especially if they were located in New York, where he had spent 10 years as a Wall Street professional. Five-star hotels, top-notch property, high-profile retailers and boutique corporate advisory firms all caught his attention, as did the spectacular Cirque du Soleil.

It was a collection of expensive baubles that made financial sense at the height of the bubble, but which looked a lot less impressive after the credit crisis had ravaged asset values across the world, and especially at the glamorous end of Manhattan. One adviser said yesterday: "He was the perfect man for Dubai in the growth years and did a lot to project a positive, go-ahead image then. "But times have changed, and now it's about managing asset devaluation. They decided some time ago that somebody else would be better for that job."

His background was impressively Ivy League: a native of Boston, educated at Princeton and Yale, where he obtained his MBA. From there, it was on to one of the most aggressive of the bulge-bracket firms on Wall Street, Lehman Brothers, where he advised on mergers and acquisitions, and private equity. His first contact with Dubai came after he left Lehman, while working for Marco Polo Partners, an emerging markets investment firm. He encountered some of the biggest players in Dubai's booming investment scene, including Sultan bin Suleyam, the chairman of Dubai World.

The government-owned conglomerate was already responsible for some of the emirate's more eye-catching ventures, such as the Palm Jumeirah by its Nakheel property division. Mr Jackson's mission at Istithmar was to translate that extravagant ambition on to the world stage, and he set about it with gusto. The first big deal was the highly profitable purchase of New York's Hemsley building in 2005 for about US$700 million (Dh2.57 billion), which was sold for $1.15bn two years later.

In between, Mr Jackson splashed out with the $100m investment in the US boutique adviser Perella Weinberg. Then came perhaps the most high-profile deal, the $942m purchase of the up-scale Manhattan retailer Barneys. Mr Jackson, as a former assistant buyer in the rival retailer Saks, invested a lot of personal time in Barneys management. The acquisition certainly put Dubai on the map in the US, and was followed by other deals for luxury hotels and developments in New York, Florida and Los Angeles.

Even in the first signs of the credit contraction, Istithmar was still expanding. At a lecture at the Yale School of Management in 2007, Mr Jackson was quoted as saying: "We are not battening down the hatches. We are putting more money to work. We see more value than we did six months ago." He urged American drivers to "keep buying the SUVs and keep going to the pumps", adding: "thanks to all of you, oil goes to $80. I don't really worry where I'm going to get the money from for my next deal."

After such confidence, when the credit crunch struck the Gulf it was a shock. But Mr Jackson still remained bullish, buying a multimillion-dollar stake in the Canadian travelling circus, Cirque du Soleil, last summer. The cost became apparent last autumn, when international analysts and investors began to mark down the value of Istithmar assets: Barneys was valued at about a third of its cost price; the Mandarin Hotel nearly halved in value; and other assets were similarly downgraded.

Analysts at Roubini Global Economics estimate Mr Jackson has invested around $20bn in Istithmar's name, of which only $3bn was in cash. The value of those investments is difficult to gauge now. With stock markets and other asset prices recovering, it could be possible that Istithmar could realise some attractive value from a disposal programme, which is one option for it and its cash-strapped owner, Dubai World.

@Email:fkane@thenational.ae

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